M&P EXCLUSIVE REPORT: Elaborating on irradiation

(MEATPOULTRY.com, August 08, 2008)
by Bryan Salvage


Source of Article:http://www.meatnews.com/feature_stories.asp?ArticleID=95679






MEATPOULTRY.com recently caught up with Ronald F. Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council, Minneapolis, and editor of The Food Irradiation Update, an e-newsletter published monthly by the Minnesota Beef Council, to get an update on meat irradiation. Hereís what he had to say:

MP.com: Which meat processors currently offer irradiated meat in the U.S?

Eustice: Schwanís, Marshall, Minn.; Omaha Steaks International Inc., Omaha, Neb., Huisken Meat Company, Sauk Rapids, Minn.; Colorado Boxed Beef Co., Auburndale, Fla., and Wegmanís, Rochester, N.Y., the supermarket chain, offers fresh irradiated ground beef processed by Cargill Meat Solutions, Wichita, Kan.

Schwanís offers three irradiated products right now. They are very committed to food irradiation as is Omaha Steaks. Omaha Steaks operates 80 retail outlets in 23 states right now with five more planned before the end of the year plus their mail-order business. Both Omaha Steaks and Schwanís have chosen to irradiate 100% of their raw ground beef in frozen form starting in 2000.

Colorado Boxed Beef Co. has been irradiating a certain percentage of their ground beef since 2000. They also offer non-irradiated ground beef products. More than 80 Wegmanís stores in the Northeast and East Coast offer fresh irradiated ground beef supplied by Cargill Meat Solutions.

MP.com: Why arenít more meat processors offering irradiated ground beef?

Eustice: The issue that is often raised by those who choose not to irradiate is the question of consumer acceptance. What we have seen is this: With both Schwanís and Omaha Steaks there is a long track record of more than eight years where they have marketed only irradiated ground beef. You can ask the question, "If consumers wouldnít accept irradiated ground beef, why are Omaha Steaks and Schwanís expanding their irradiated product lines?"

We also have an increasing amount of irradiated produce in the U.S. About 10 million lbs. of irradiated produce is currently marketed here in the United States each year. We have irradiated mangos from India that have been on the market for the last two seasons. We have mangosteens from Thailand that are in the supermarkets in the U.S. We have irradiated papaya from Hawaii that are in some of the leading supermarkets nationwide.

What does this have to do with meat? It shows the consumer is buying irradiated food and thereís more irradiated food in the supermarkets than most people ever imagined.

One-third of the commercial spices in the U.S. have been irradiated...175 million lbs. Between 15 and 20 million lbs. of irradiated meat and poultry and about 10 million lbs. of irradiated produce are marketed in the U.S. each year.

MP.com: Why have irradiation technology providers been so quiet in recent years?

Eustice: I canít answer that completely, but I do know that Food Technology Services and Sadex are aggressively talking to some folks. Keep in mind there are not a lot of irradiation technology companies left out there to make any noise. Basically, you have Food Technology Service Inc., Mulberry, Fla., and Sadex Corp., Sioux City, Iowa, who provide meat irradiation services and GRAY*STAR, Mt. Arlington, NJ and Nordion of Ontario, Canada who provide the irradiation equipment. The Food Irradiation Processors Alliance (F.I.P.A.) is taking a more pro-active role to promote irradiation technology. 

Hereís what I see thatís going to take place in the future. Everything I hear and see at industry meetings points to the fact that the U.S. beef industry does not have a technology that will be able to provide the beef industry with the level of food-safety assurance it needs to provide to its customers. In other words, we are going to continue to have this level of E. coli O157:H7 contamination and outbreaks. I consider the current level to be unacceptable. If we take a look at 0.2%, 0.24% rate last year...that level is simply unacceptable. It means one out of 400 to 600 ground beef patties is contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. That would be unacceptable in any industry. If one out of 600 automobiles had a defect when they went off the assembly line, there would be hearings in Washington and right now there are (food safety) hearings taking place in Washington (on Salmonella in produce). The fact is we have the technology that can solve this problem.

The medical community is going to have to step forward at some point and say what weíre doing is not acceptable. I do not see that the industry has any other solution that will help us to do a better job than we have done in the past.

MP.com: Irradiation is ideal because it can be done post-packaging or before packaging.

Eustice: One of the primary advantages of irradiation over other kill steps is that it can be performed in the final "sealed" packaging. Irradiation penetrates the packages and kills the bacteria in the product as well as in the packaging itself. As long as the package remains closed, the food is protected from cross contamination. This also allows the flexibility of either having an irradiator on-site at the packing house or off site at a centralized service facility. That being said, there might be instances where the product, or components of the product are irradiated prior to final packaging.

There may be a place for packers to install a facility at the location right before the carcass goes into the cooler. Research at U.S.D.A.ís Meat Animal Research facility at Clay Center, Neb. showed that after the hide is taken off; a moderate level of irradiation can be used to sterilize each carcass. When that animal is de-hided, you have airborne bacteria that stays right on that carcass...all your washing and steam vacuuming and all of the other anti-microbial technologies can get some of the contamination off, but they never get all of it off.

MP.com: Perception is everything. What do consumers think of food irradiation?

Eustice: Every study Iíve seen says we have somewhere in the 65% to 80% range of people saying they donít have a problem with the technology. In fact, when they learn a little bit more about it, they actually prefer irradiated over non-irradiated ground beef. These studies also ask will the customer pay more for irradiated ground beef. All of the studies indicate they will.

I have seen cases where a company has discontinued selling irradiated ground beef because they thought they were at a price disadvantage. Iím going to answer that by saying all itís going to take is one lawsuit and youíre going to be at a very definite competitive disadvantage because you may be very well out of business. And how many children do you want to be responsible for making seriously ill, maiming or killing because you said "Iím going to be price competitive?"

MP.com: The word "irradiation" still scares people. Several years ago there was some debate about changing the word irradiation to pasteurization. Does it matter to you what the technology is called?

Eustice: It should be up to each individual company what they want to call it. I donít have strong feelings on the name. Companies should have the choice to call it an appropriate name that can be justified based on science. Pasteurization is defined as a 5-log (99.999%) reduction and if the U.S.D.A. says that ought to be acceptable, then we should be able to call food irradiation pasteurization.

MP.com: In the late 1990s, a petition was filed with U.S.D.A. to allow irradiation of meat and poultry with added ingredients. It never went anywhere.

Eustice: Thatís not a dead issue at all. I expect action on that by the end of the 2008.

MP.com: Some proponents have been predicting this would be OKíd "by the end of the year" since 1999. Why is this taking so long?

Eustice: I donít know, except to say that all food additive approvals seem to take an inordinate amount of time.

MP.com: Irradiation is legally defined as an additive and it would take an act of Congress to change this definition. Should Congress change the definition in order for this technology to have more of a chance to advance in the beef industry?

Eustice: Thatís called the Delaney Clause. Back in the 1950s, Congress declared the process of irradiation as an additive. It would take another act of Congress to have irradiation properly reclassified as a process. The F.D.A. has approved many items to be irradiated since that time. F.D.A. food-additive approvals are a long and time-consuming process. Should Congress reverse the Delaney Clause, it would make it much more efficient for irradiated foods to be put into the marketplace. It would also provide much needed relief to the overburdened F.D.A. Regardless of whether or not the Delaney Clause is reversed, the important thing is to assure that this important food-safety technology be made available to the entire food industry. We are seeing an increasing amount of irradiated products but mostly produce at this stage. We have also approved shellfish for irradiation, but I donít know of any shellfish is being irradiated right now.

Iím totally committed to this technology and Iím reasonably optimistic about whatís happening right now. Nobody said it was going to be easy (to gain widespread acceptance of food irradiation). It took a long time before pasteurized milk was commonplace. Some of the same arguments against pasteurization are used against food irradiation.

We have to do more to move this technology forward in the beef industry.





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